I knew I needed to find Eugene Charlie; I just didn’t know why.
For days I’d had a strong feeling I should track down a man I’d known only briefly, and not under the best of circumstances. He was serving time in federal prison; as was I.
How we wound up there probably couldn’t have been much different. I’m actually not sure exactly why Eugene was serving his government-paid holiday. I’d heard it had something to do with alcohol. But I never learned any details and never asked. One of the first things you learn when you’re behind bars is that if someone wants to talk about what got them there, they bring it up, not you.
I knew why I was there – for refunding money some of my best customers paid for their life insurance policies, a practice known as rebating. Giving rebates is considered illegal in some jurisdictions, most pertinently, in my case, Idaho, where I gave the rebates, but since it wasn’t illegal other places and nobody was out any money and I was a highly successful insurance broker, I let my pride and sense of self-importance justify it as a victimless crime. Maybe Eugene Charlie justified what he did too, but we never talked about it.
I spent four months at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in California, sleeping, eating, walking, standing in line and counting the days alongside most every race, color and creed you can imagine, with Caucasians like me in a decided minority. Once I’d gotten over the almost debilitating shock that I was actually there, I made it a point to befriend anyone and everyone I could.
That included the big Indian, Eugene Charlie.
Like everyone else, at first he didn’t know quite what to make of the old white guy from Idaho talking to him. But we were about the same age and over time he must have decided I didn’t have any motive other than to be friendly because he invited me to sit in the sweat lodge with him.
Sweat lodges are sanctuaries where Native Americans get in touch with holy spirits. The Indians at Terminal Island were able to construct a sweat lodge out of logs next to the exercise yard because it was for religious purposes.
I sweated there alongside Eugene Charlie and we became friends.
Never did I imagine I’d find myself inside a sweat lodge, to say nothing of spending time inside a federal prison. But there I was, on the wrong side of the bars, with no rights, no privileges, no standing. I never knew what real cruelty was until I went to prison. The demeaning and disrespect from the guards, the wardens, the administrators and everyone who runs the place begins as soon as you hear the big iron gate slam behind you and never subsides.
But in spite of the dehumanizing, and indeed because of it, as I slept on a cot three feet from rapists, murderers, thieves, drug dealers, conmen and who knows what else, I learned there’s not as much difference between us as we think there is. We go through life sure we’re very different because of how much money we have or who are parents are or where we live or the color of our skin or what church we go to or what we do for a living, but we’re really not that unalike at all. We are all human beings. Prison taught me that.
Once I was released, I felt the urge to contact people who I befriended, and befriended me; people I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to for getting me through. I went to Los Angeles and visited Henry Butler, an African-American everyone called “Black,” and Estil Mitts, a tough-talking Jewish ex-Marine.
I didn’t think much about Eugene Charlie until one day in Scottsdale, about three years after my release, I got the distinct impression I needed to see him too. I had no idea where the thought came from, but I couldn’t shake it so I turned to Dorothy and told her what I was feeling and, as is her way, she smiled and said, “Let’s go.”
I had no contact information for Eugene Charlie, only a vague idea that I’d find him on the Navajo Reservation somewhere, probably close to Gallup, New Mexico, because I’d heard him talk about that being home. Gallup is 270 miles from Scottsdale. We gassed up Dorothy’s Mercedes and set off in the morning. By afternoon we pulled into the Walmart in Gallup, on the edge of the rez. There were hardly any customers in the store and the shelves were stacked high with merchandise. The Walmart people told me they sell everything the first five days of the month, when the Indians get their government checks, then spend the rest of the month restocking the shelves. They’d said they didn’t know Eugene Charlie, and I didn’t think I’d want to wait until the first of the month in the hopes he’d come shopping.
I went into a nearby jewelry store and asked the Indian woman behind the counter if she knew Eugene Charlie. She said she thought she did and went into the back room to get some information, but when she came out a few seconds later she said she didn’t know anything and it was clear she’d thought better of helping me. It’s been 250 years since we did what we did to the Indians, but I still think they’d be happy if they could just get rid of all the whites.
After we checked into the Hilton Garden Inn next to the Walmart, I headed for the other side of the freeway and the more established side of Gallup – where the bars were. I thought I’d just start at one end of town and ask for leads, but on the way I saw a police car parked at a barbershop and decided instead to ask the policeman. He said he’d talk to me—after he finished his haircut. So I waited.
I told him I was in prison with a guy named Eugene Charlie and I’d like to find him, could he help me?
The Indian cop wrote down Eugene Charlie’s address on a slip of paper and handed it to me, explaining I’d need to drive about 30 miles out into the rez.
“Are you going alone?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I’m taking my wife with me.”
He looked me up and down, not unlike those guards at Terminal Island, and said he didn’t think that was such a good idea. He acted like he wanted to say more, but instead just shook his head and was gone.
I looked at Dorothy, looked at the address in my hand, and wondered what the hell I was doing, surrounded by a lot of nothing, in the middle of Indian country, getting the silent treatment, a complete outsider, in a white Mercedes Benz.
But the voice that got me here in the first place kept telling me to go on, and we’d already come this far …
… After 30 miles of driving through dirt and cactus we found the address the cop had given me for Eugene Charlie. It turned out to be an old school building, next to a bunch of junk cars and trailers.
By now the sun had gone down and, again, I thought I should probably just forget the whole thing, but before I did that I walked straight up to a trailer and knocked. A woman answered. No, there were no Charlies in that area, she said, but she knew the family and, before averting her gaze, pointed me down the road another 10 miles.
We eventually came to a house, where I told a man who I was and what I wanted. He went inside and, I presume, made a phone call. When he returned, he said, “I’m Eugene’s nephew and I know where he lives and you would never find him unless I take you there. Do you feel comfortable following me?”
In for a penny, in for a pound.
We followed his pickup farther into the wilderness, until he abruptly stopped, got out, and pointed to a house that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
A minute later, there the big Indian was, walking toward the car, his wife and nephew trailing behind him. He came up to me, put his arms around me, and gave me a big hug. He spoke in Navajo to his family, telling them, I imagine, something along the lines of “This is that crazy guy from Idaho I was telling you about.”
I could tell from our embrace and the look in Eugene Charlie’s eyes he was thrilled to death that I’d come all that way to see him, but there was little outward emotion. When we came in the house, they left the TV on, but turned the sound down. From time to time someone would come over and pat me on the head, like they do with a dog. No one said much. When they did talk it was mostly in Navajo. Back at Terminal Island, when Eugene Charlie would come over to my bunk in the evenings, he didn’t say much there either. We didn’t bring up prison at all. We never did talk about the sweat lodge. I told him how good it was to see him and he said he’d come and look me up when he got a chance, but I didn’t plan on that. At some point they brought out a gift for Dorothy: a little jewelry box with handmade earrings and a necklace inside.
As I sat there, looking around Eugene Charlie’s house, something said to me, Well, Rand, you got what you came for, now you can go home. I realized I hadn’t come for what I could give Eugene Charlie; I’d come for what Eugene Charlie could give me: a reminder, a little refresher course, that we might live on opposite sides of the planet, we might go about our lives completely differently, but we’re all the same.
It’s nice to have money, nice cars, good clothes and smell good. There’s no problem having luxuries—you just can’t allow your brain to think just because you’ve got all that stuff you’re better than somebody else. As we followed behind Eugene Charlie’s pickup as he threaded his way through a pitch black night showing us a straight shot back to Gallup, I knew why I was prompted to come see the man I’d met in prison. He’s my brother and I am his. I don’t ever want to forget that.